Samford University chef Chris Vizzina not only feeds thousands of people a day in the Samford cafeteria, he is helping teach his community healthier ways to cook.
The head of Samford’s Campus Dining operation volunteered for Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to School Program. He helped Jefferson County School District cafeteria workers gain a better understanding of cooking with fresh products. He prepared meals for Birmingham’s Cooking for a Cause dinner, which benefits the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities project. He regularly performs demonstrations of healthier cooking techniques for local television and other forums.
A member of the Slow Food Movement, Vizzina espouses cooking from scratch as much as possible using fresh and local products. His benefit dinner was a perfect example: a tomato salad, roasted snapper or chicken, grilled summer vegetables, baked grits, and peaches and blueberries, all from local sources.
“The whole idea behind it is we are trying to utilize everything that’s in the peak of its season,” he told Birmingham News food writer Bob Carlton. “I really don’t want to mask any of the flavors. I want everything to be as natural and fresh and as local as possible.”
The Slow Food Movement in Birmingham works “to educate the public on the benefits of locally grown food,” said Vizzina. The movement is an answer to the fast food industry that focuses on uniform, mass-produced food products that aren’t as tasty or as healthy as home-grown products. It originated in Italy in 1986 following the opening of that nation’s first fast-food hamburger outlet, and came to Birmingham in 2007.
Vizzina is an ongoing supporter of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities project, which the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership started to fight childhood obesity by changing policies and creating healthier choices.
The benefit dinner, sponsored by the United Way Young Leaders Society, was a hit. “The food was outstanding . . . and the message was clear: Healthy food cooked in a healthy way can be absolutely delicious!” said participant Melinda Mathews.
Vizzina incorporates his beliefs into his food preparation at Samford, where he feeds as many as 1,500 people a day. He uses fresh meat and poultry produced in Birmingham and Alabama, purchases fresh produce from the Finley Avenue Farmers Market, and buys fresh bread and milk and dairy products from local producers.
“The Alabama Farmers Market provides a huge selection of fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers,” he said. “Not only is it fresher and available in Birmingham’s backyard, but you support our local economy every time you purchase products from the Market.
“When food is fresh and grown in your own backyard, it’s not only better for you, it’s tastier.”
Vizzina notes there are other local sources such as Pepper Place, the Jones Valley Urban Farms and smaller local farmers markets.
Vizzina has been at Samford “for 10 wonderful and exciting years,” he said. Before that, he was chef de cuisine for noted chef Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill and at Armans at Park Lane in Birmingham, and rounds chef at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in St. Louis, Mo.
He was recently nominated for the Silver Plate award, presented by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association to the top food service operator in colleges and universities.
Vizzina’s goal is simple: “I will stay relentless and focused in my pursuit of perfection for food service programs here at Samford.”